He Gave Us Bonvoy And Defended Resort Fees. Did Arne Sorenson ‘Stand Up For What Was Right?’

I was sad to learn of the passing of Marriott’s long-time CEO Arne Sorenson, the first ‘non-Marriott’ to hold the post. My sympathies go out to his family who lost him to pancreatic cancer way too early at 62. I wasn’t going to write about it because the news is well-covered, and what could I possibly have to add?

He was an important CEO for the company, and important to the people who loved him of course. But like so many corporate CEOs perhaps the best epitaph is “it’s complicated” when analyzing their career and public persona because – as was his role – he did what he thought right for the company and that may not have been what was best for employees, customers, or society. Though reasonable people can differ.

Here’s American Airlines CEO Doug Parker’s take,

It’s polite to say only nice things about the recently-departed. And I have sympathy for Sorenson’s family and the colleagues who cared about him. Still, this claim from Scott Mayerowitz at The Points Guy troubled me,

TPG’s founder, Brian Kelly, and I were discussing Sorenson’s passing this morning and he said so aptly, “He stood up for what was right for his employees and customers.”

There’s no question that Sorenson took a public stand on some issues. As Mayorowitz observes, Arne Sorenson opposed the North Carolina bathroom bill. He spoke out in favor of travel as a way of connecting people, and opposed President Trump’s immigration policies (“He also pleaded with former President Donald Trump not to deport undocumented immigrants.”).

Though my broader point on these things is it’s complicated because at the same time some Marriott properties were found being used to detain children prior to deportation.

I sat down with Arne Sorenson shortly after Marriott acquired Starwood. It was supposed to be just a meeting with some executives, chiefly the person running Marriott Rewards at the time. But Sorenson joined the meeting and instead of a quick meet and greet he stayed for an hour. I was honored by the time.

He asked me point blank, why don’t you believe me when I say I want Marriott to have the only loyalty program customers will ever need?

I believe he wanted that at some level, but was simultaneously promising that Bonvoy would mean lower costs for owners, he saw the program as a way primarily of offering 30 brands without substantial differentiation or marketing budgets (people loyal to the program go to the Marriott website and book whatever hotels the chain has to offer). And most of all he didn’t seem to understand the nature of loyalty.

That day’s Wall Street Journal quoted him as saying that loyalty meant always offering the best value to the customer on each stay. We talked about that, because I think that gets it exactly backwards – when you develop a relationship with customers, and treat them well, they’ll stay with you even when you do not offer the best value on a given stay.

Sorenson accomplished a lot. He grew the Marriott footprint substantially by acquiring Starwood. Prior to the pandemic it was a very effective company, though I think they made real blunders in giving up much of the value in what they had purchased with Starwood (by letting go of Starwood’s design team, and failing to retain many of its loyalty marketing personnel).

From what I can tell, he was a genuinely decent man. He still had much to contribute. It’s sad to lose someone especially so talented at what’s still in many ways a young age. There are huge shoes to fill for his family and for Marriott. His public legacy though, I think, is more complicated than society says we ought to acknowledge. And that flows naturally from the role he filled at the helm of a global business in a very political industry.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Cherish your life, and cherish your loved ones. Life is elusive, can slip away just like that.

    We just had a 1 year memorial for my dad earlier today who died from (a different) type of cancer:(

  2. @Gary – Don’t forget tipping, and underpaying, cleaning staff.

    Businesses like his are why I understand people pushing for a $15/hr minimum wage (and that rate is 15+ years old, as the movement started at Harvard in 2005). That’s not to say I hated the guy or anything, but “standing up for employees” really does not seem apt given the full picture. He stood up for investors, which was his job.

  3. Thoughts and prayers to his friends & family.

    On a completely separate note related to his position as CEO – he ruined Marriott. Good riddance he won’t be missed.

  4. I suspect you might get a lot of flak for this post, but numerous friends and I are really glad you wrote it.

    You succinctly captured the amorphous feelings of ambivalence surrounding this guy – “customers *understand* resort fees”, “the airline industry has baggage fees, why should we not have [non-optional] resort fees”? etc. Honestly you could have said a lot more about this if you wanted. He is also being lauded for being pro-employee when he was very anti-employee during the strikes of several years ago. list goes on…

    Sad this happened to him but can’t whitewash the fact his policies were not good for the hotel guest.

    Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
    Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.

  5. I don’t think it should be up to corporations and CEOs to speak out against government policy.
    Corporations are here to make money and this is what he did very well, al the while butchering our lovely SPG
    governments are elected by the people if the people don’t like the policies they will then elect someone else

  6. TPG is a cockroach and will say whatever preserves/promotes his financial interests. There’s nothing to analyze here, Gary.

  7. When my SO graduated from law school at the U of M a few years ago, Arne was the commencement speaker (he obtained his JD from the U of M as well) and by happenstance, he sat next to me for the more boring parts of the ceremony and we got to chatting.

    I explained that I could count on one hand how many times I’ve stayed at Marriott Properties and was extremely apprehensive about Marriott’s then-recent acquisition of SPG given the perpetual devaluations across loyalty programs of all types.

    He wasn’t defensive, nor dismissive. He seemed to genuinely care what I had to say and following his speech, he made a quick pass by my seat, shook my hand (pre-pandemic mind you) and very warmly said “I hope I end up surprising you”, to which I replied in a similar manner: “Me too”

    He gave a great speech on that day and though the time was brief I found him to be a very pleasant and intelligent gentleman – I may not agree with plenty that he did to the loyalty program (or at least what he permitted under his leadership), but I know that he thought he was doing what was right.

  8. Gary. Totally random question. Why do you use that particular stock photo for your Marriott stories. It is one ugly looking property.

  9. I’m with most of the above commenters. Sorenson was simply awful for employees and awful for engaged loyalty members. While I didn’t wish him ill on a personal level, he was a miserable CEO. Prior to him, Marriott had a philosophy of taking care of their own people who would in turn take care of the customer. Arne viewed the customer as an adversary rather than a valued partner, so that valued customer perspective flew out the window. TPG is absolutely bereft of integrity, so anything from that site should be viewed with the utmost scepticism.

  10. Unfortunately, the cemetery established “peak season award pricing” for plots, and they don’t have enough points to bury him.

  11. @Tom I – not actually a stock photo, it’s one I’ve taken (Boca Raton Marriott) it somehow seems to represent Marriott to me, it just speaks to me

  12. @Christian – “Arne viewed the customer as an adversary rather than a valued partner, so that valued customer perspective flew out the window.”

    This is the most accurate assessment of Arne Sorensen based on industry observers. Well said.

  13. Arne Sorensen rests in peace on his final Bon Voyage, but his customers are not at peace with getting Bon Voyed. Hilton and Marriott may be toast, but Hyatt and Sonesta are being toasted.

  14. Thank you, Gary. Great post.

    On the human level, sorry to hear about Sorensen’s death. Always tough for the family.

    From the Marriott loyalist standpoint, he helped create an adversary relationship between its managed properties and guests. Upgrade available but not given, use formulas to figure out breakfast benefits, devaluations, dynamic is only up and not down, and gee, it’s 2021 and not the Puritan era – let’s continue the bible practice in each room…

    When I travel, I still stay at Marriott properties when convenient and some higher-end ones still get some things right, but that feeling of a likely polite word fight to make sure that the Bonvoy program benefits are adhered to dissipates any loyalty conmection to the Marriott corporation.

    Oh, and I truly believe Andaz Maui should be managed by Marriott. Even Hyatt has issues. 🙂

    While SPG was mostly great, let’s not forget cookoo point pricing at the top-end properties.

    All hotel chains will sell our loyalty for another incremental dollar in profit. Perhaps, it would take $2 for Hyatt…

    Cheers.

    Marriott Titanium
    Hilton Diamond
    Hyatt Globalist

  15. @ Gary — The guy was a typical greedy, customer-screwing CEO. His unfortunate death doesn’t magically change that fact.

  16. Oh and to add, one of my friends thought I have poor taste in reveling that he suffered while having cancer. My response is when they go low, I go even lower. I don’t even believe Arne suffered long enough to have died. He got off too easy to the livelihoods he ruined. I truly wished he suffered longer from cancer before he died. Good riddance.

  17. I am not sure which is worse, Gary’s poorly timed post or the stupid, ignorant comments. Maybe we can prepare comments in advance in case Gary was to suddenly pass.

    Gary was a self important individual who made a business out of pushing people to various credit card offers so he live off the the referral fees. True and accuracy meant nothing to Gary, it was all about the dollars. His articles were self serving with the goal of getting readers to obtain credit cards so he got the fees. If the individual applied and earned some points, that was fine, but it wasn’t as if that was his goal. Just another greedy blogger.

  18. LOL at the culturally woke olympics. Gary gets the silver, woke and coke Brian gets the gold.

    Let’s judge him by being woke on U.S. policies based on American privileged standards but let’s not say anything about kissing up to a totalitarian regime. It was so bad even Victims of Communism noticed. Nothing new I guess, cultural elitists and fake wokesters historically kiss the behinds of totalitarian regimes, it was bad with the Soviets and Germans too. If Gary and Brian were around in the 1930’s, they would probably be praising the “equality” of the Germans and Soviets. Maybe they would have a “swanky” review and tips for being woke for their corporate masters too while hoping they don’t have a traumatic experience like a subpar 1st class experience!

    George Carlin was so right.

    Anyway, Arne drove Marriott into the toilet, that’s the only thing relevant, but the chase referral codes for Marriott cards lined the pockets of bloggers, so let’s forget about that and talk again about his progressive values while ignoring his worshipping of a genocidal totalitarian regime because that’s how morally bankrupt many of the card slingers and CEOs like Arne are.

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